People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 4): We study ravens, eagles, and crows before discovering a website with reliable election predictions

Day 4: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie studies ravens, eagles, and crows before discovering a website with reliable election predictions

We really should bring back the old Roman art of soothsaying.

We certainly have enough geese around town to do lots of readings. And there are omens galore: the white-winged raven that lives near my place; the bald eagle that circled Parliament Hill the day before the government fell; the strange and jarring growth in the local crow population in recent times.

I suspect the crows are around because they’re pretty sure they’re safe from predators. They should have been wiped out years ago by hungry pollsters, yet, like political journalists, poll takers have no real shame about being wrong.

Right now, I have only one bet placed on this election. I have $100 out there that says there will not be a Harper majority. I don’t believe that’s a particularly safe bet. Pretty much a coin toss, really, at this stage of the campaign.

There’s still a chance that someone will say something incredibly stupid. Campaign ads can backfire. Harper could be caught swallowing a kitten. Someone could get a picture of the coffin being loaded into the sleeping quarters on the Liberal campaign plane. Jack Layton’s hip-soothing painkillers could inspire him to tell us what he really thinks of ordinary Canadians — folks who, unlike him, don’t have a $300,000-a-year family income.

I don’t trust polls, partly because I’m not the trusting sort, and partly because I read the fine print. Plus or minus 4 percent gives the pollster 8 percent to work with. That’s a huge amount of room: the difference, in many elections, between winning and losing, between majority and minority.

Then there’s the ultra-fine print. The pollsters claim their results are right 19 out of 20 times. So 5 percent of the time, they’re flat-out wrong.

Then there are the other little problems. People hang up on them. They don’t call people’s cell phones. People lie. And the calls don’t seem all that random. I never got a call from a pollster before I moved to Ottawa in the mid-1990s. Now I get called all the time.

Pollsters seem to have no problem accepting my lies that I am a 26-year-old community college dropout with seven kids who lives in the Rockcliffe postal code area and earns more than $200,000 a year. And when I tell them I’m voting Bloc Québécois, they say “uh huh” and write that down, too.

But there is hope for those of us who go to Wikipedia to look up the endings of movies, so we won’t be so surprised when Josh Hartnett gets shot in the belly by stereotypical Japanese soldiers and Ben Affleck ends up raising his kid.

I found one web site that does a riding-by-riding analysis of the campaign and has a pretty good track record of calling federal and provincial elections. The Election Prediction Project tends to be the best around. That’s the good news. They say John Baird does not have a lock on Ottawa West-Nepean. More good news. Otherwise, none of the local incumbents have anything to worry about. That’s bad news.

But it’s soooo Ottawa.